Art as History’s Witness
Art as History’s Witness
Paintings from Terezin are on exhibit at the Jewish Federation Building
By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor
Left: “Competitors for Potatoes” by Eli Leskley. “Many [paintings] … are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny.”
It was 1942 when 29-year-old Eli Leskley, a Czech-born Jew, was sent to Theresienstadt, a fortified ghetto 50 kilometers from Prague. As a visual artist, he was assigned to the sign workshop, where he had access to paper, paint, ink, pencils and other art supplies. With what must have been a combination of remarkable courage and an overpowering need to document what transpired there, Leskley secretly painted dozens of prison-life scenes, mostly with watercolors and ink on office-sized paper taken from the workshop.
In a world where possession of contraband cigarettes was a fatal offense, the risk of discovery for the artist was great. Leskley folded and hid his paintings — many of which were sharply satirical — in the nooks and crevices of the camp, sometimes first tearing off the incriminating text that accompanied them. Some, such as “The Three Kings of the Ghetto” and “Christian Jews are Arriving,” incorporated symbols and metaphor. Others, such as “Return After Disinfection” and “Trading Soup for Bread” were more journalistic in their approach to describing life in the “model” ghetto.
Nazi propagandists may have touted Terezin as a bucolic resort for cultural elites, even prettying it up with tablecloths, flowers and classical concerts for a Red Cross visit. Of course, Leskley and his fellow prisoners knew better. Immediately prior to and after that infamous visit — an elaborately staged sham depicted by the artist in several drawings — the SS shipped thousands of inmates to Auschwitz. Terezin was a closely guarded, disease-ridden place where death — whether from punishment, starvation or the dreaded transport east — was common.
As chance would have it, both Leskley and much of his work survived. After liberation, he and his wife, Elsa, recovered many of the hidden paintings, which they took with them when they emigrated from Europe to Israel.
Now, more than 50 years later, visitors to an exhibition at the Jewish Federation Building can get a look at these drawings, a bitter, detailed vision of camp life. Most of the pictures were done when Leskley was off duty and able to work unobserved in his third-floor bunk. Many of them are like ghoulishly bright cartoons in which the subject matter is anything but funny. The effect is powerful and immediate.
The exhibition is entitled “Terezin: Then and Now.” The “then” portion includes 70 of the works Leskley produced in Terezin, along with his later re-creations of the same. The latter are companion pieces — larger, more highly colored versions of the ghetto-produced originals, done by the artist during his first decade in Israel. The wall text that accompanies Leskley’s works provides an important context for them through its informative descriptions of the physical and sociological conditions that prevailed at Terezin.
A collection of miscellaneous camp artifacts is also on display. Included are postcards, permits for packages and, most heartbreaking, the “Nesharim flag,” a hand-embroidered pennant that was sewn to mark a soccer-tournament victory for the camp’s team of young boys.
The art in the “Now” portion of the show is the result of something altogether different. In 1993, 13 young painters who were members of a master class at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts spent five days at the former site of the Terezin camp. The art students — none of whom were Jewish — hailed from countries as far-flung as Germany and Singapore. Their trip was made under the auspices of Project Gedenkdienst, which translates as Commemorative Service. The 4-year-old program, run out of the offices of Austria’s Interior Ministry, allows young Austrians to substitute 14 months of work at Holocaust memorials for their obligatory eight months of military service. One such intern, Bernhard Schneider, created the Terezin art project, which centered around the class’s trip to the ghetto memorial.
Judging by the haunted quality in many of these paintings, all of the students seem to have been deeply affected by their visit. Their project is described at greater length in the exhibition catalog, which includes brief commentary from Simon Wiesenthal, Vaclav Havel and the group’s professor, Anton Lehmden.
As for Leskley, his art was forged in far different circumstances. As with any other “Holocaust art,” it is difficult, and perhaps pointless, to judge his work by the rules of art criticism. The strength and importance of this show are not necessarily in its sophistication or subtlety of technique but in its power as visual testimony. This is not only art for art’s sake but art for the sake of history. In this capacity, Leskley is a cleareyed and vivid witness.
“Terezin: Then and Now,” at the Jewish Federation Building, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. The exhibition is on display in the Pauline Hirsh Gallery, Museum Gallery, Boardroom and select corridors. For more information, call (213) 852-3242. The Federation will also host a performance of music and poetry from Terezin on June 29 at 4 p.m.
More About Terezin
Film Several short films about the Theresienstadt Ghetto have been made over the years, ranging from four-minute shorts to hour-long productions. They include a film of interviews conducted with survivors at an Israeli kibbutz and the infamous Nazi propaganda film “The Führer Grants the Jews a City.” The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles has gathered videotapes of all the Terezin-themed films known to date and is screening them for visitors in its Museum Gallery on Sundays, at 2 p.m., and Thursdays, at 3 p.m. Call (213) 852-3242 for a complete program and confirmed schedule.
Books Here is a short list of recommended books about Terezin. While some are widely available elsewhere, all of them may be found in the Federation’s Martyrs’ Memorial Library and Jewish Community Library, or may be purchased from the museum book store. Call the number above for a more extensive bibliography.
* Bor, Josef, “The Terezin Requiem.” New York, Borzoi Books, Knopf, 1963. Translated from the Czech.
* De Silva, Cara, ed., “In Memory’s Kitchen.” New Jersey, Jason Aronson, 1996. Translated by Bianca Steiner Brown, forward by Michael Berenbaum.
* Karas, Joza, “Music in Terezin, 1941-1945.” Paperback edition, Stuyvesant, N.Y., Pendragon Press, 1990.
* Schwertfeger, Ruth, “Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp.” Oxford, England, Berg, 1989.
* Volavkova, Hana, ed., “I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944.” New York, Shocken Books and U.S. National Holocaust Museum, 1993. Expanded second edition with a forward by Chaim Potok and afterword by Vaclav Havel.